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'Are you still alive?' Virus fears grip South Korean city

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A woman wearing vinyl gloves on a subway train. Guests donning masks at a sparsely attended wedding ceremony. People feverishly stocking up on instant noodles and rice. Friends calling each other and asking if they're still alive.

Fears of a soaring viral outbreak are gripping the South Korean city of Daegu and the surrounding area, with residents struggling as they try to stay away from a virus that has already sickened hundreds of people in the region, killing at least 10 of them.

“We call each other here and half-jokingly ask whether they are alive and tell each other not to wander around," Choe Hee-suk, a 37-year-old office worker, said by phone. The region hadn’t reported a single case until Feb. 18, when a Daegu woman in her early 60s tested positive for the virus that first emerged in China.

But a week later, more than 790 cases have been reported around the city of 2.5 million people in the country's southeast, a sudden jump that has prompted concerns that the outbreak is getting out of control.

The Daegu region accounts for over 80% of South Korea’s nearly 1,000 virus cases and 10 of its 11 deaths. South Korea has seen the largest outbreak of the virus outside mainland China, which has confirmed more than 77,660 cases and over 2,660 fatalities.

More than half of the cases in the Daegu area are linked to a controversial church that is viewed as a cult by mainstream Christian organizations. The region’s first patient is a member of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus who had attended services before being diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus. Authorities say it’s unlikely that the woman, who has no record of recent overseas travel, set off the chain of infections.

As South Korea’s central government vows all-out efforts to contain the region's outbreak, public anxiety is destabilizing everyday lives and threatening to seriously impact the local economy. “We have never experienced anything like this. ... We are creating and refining our system as we go along,” said Kim Jin-hwan, a doctor at Keimyung University Dongsan Medical Center in Daegu, where around 230 virus patients are being treated.

“We have so far managed to toughen it out. But the situation can become harder to cope with if infections continue to rise,” he said. “Things are even worse for the public health centers and clinics designated to test suspected patients. ... They test for 24 hours a day, and it’s still not enough.”

In Daegu’s usually bustling Dongseongro commercial district on Monday, only a few pedestrians were seen, making it look like a ghost town. Workers dressed in black protective gear and white masks sprayed disinfectant at a nearly deserted branch of the popular Lotte Department Store, local media photos showed.

Oh Sang-hak, a taxi driver, said he hadn’t worked for several days because he was uneasy about picking up strangers with the virus circulating in the city. “It’s like time has stopped ... and there is just no movement,” Oh said. “Until last week, we thought the coronavirus was someone else’s problem.”

Lee Nag-hyeon, 63, said he thinks media reports on virus fears in Daegu have been a bit exaggerated. But he said he saw a masked woman wearing a pair of disposable gloves when he took a subway on Monday. He said he also heard about convenience store staff wearing goggles when dealing with customers.

Daegu residents posted photos on social media of supermarket shelves devoid of staples such as instant noodles, curry and dried seaweed. On Monday, people wearing masks stood in long lines outside an Emart discount store in Daegu’s Mancheon district as they tried to stock up on face masks, which have been quickly selling out online.

Choe, the office worker, said she had three boxes of ramen, four boxes of cereal and three 20-kilogram (44-pound) bags of rice at her home. Lee said he began writing on his masks the dates he last wore them to re-use them later if no more are available for sale.

At Daegu’s Gyodong traditional market on Monday, about half of the roughly 1,000 shops were closed, with the number of visitors declining recently by more than 90%. “Maybe it would be better for all the merchants to shut their doors, but their means of a living are here. So some have made the difficult decision to open their shops,” said Ahn Sook-hee, an official at an association of merchants at the market.

The virus is also changing the scenes at weddings and funerals, events that typically draw large crowds in South Korea. At Daegu’s Gangbug Convention wedding hall, only two of the 10 scheduled wedding ceremonies were held over the weekend, with the other eight couples postponing their big day at the last minute. A typical wedding ceremony draws around 200 people, but the two held on Saturday had only about 50 each, according to wedding hall employee Park Ye Jin.

At both ceremonies, everyone except for the bride and groom were required to wear masks. “We didn’t let anyone enter the hall if they didn’t wear masks," Park said. She said most guests left without eating any of the food set up at the banquet reception.

Ahn said that all of her planned gatherings of relatives and friends have been canceled, and that she recently skipped a funeral and just sent condolence money to the bereaved family. Lee said that even if a loved one of a close friend were to die, he wouldn't go to the funeral — an event he would feel obligated to attend in ordinary times.

Choe said her family canceled her father’s 70th birthday party, which was scheduled to take place at a Daegu restaurant this past Saturday with about 30 guests. “We just had barbecues at home, and my father was very disappointed,” Choe said, adding that her family plans a more formal party for him at home later this week.

Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.

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